2011 was a painful year for action movies. Quantum of Solace was still the most recent and most mediocre Bond film, Matt Damon wasn’t coming back for the next Bourne thriller, and John Wick wasn’t even a bloody twinkle in Keanu Reeves’ eye.
Instead, as Marvel began to tighten its hold on the box office, bloated franchise installments were the order of the day. Transformers: Dark of the Moon punished innocent moviegoers with 154 minutes of noise, On Stranger Tides embodied the concept of diminishing returns, A Game of Shadows sunk a promising Sherlock Holmes reboot, and Fast Five was a brotastic cacophony. If you wanted an original concept, well, there was always Cowboys & Aliens, Battle: Los Angeles, or In Time. It was all enough to make you just stay home and read a book.
But then there was Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The grammatically adventurous film was an unlikely savior of the summer popcorn flick, but its Eminem-laden trailer offered little insight into its potential.
One should never count out Tom Cruise, but his most recent action role was Knight and Day, the cinematic equivalent of the shrug emoji. And while Brad Bird had directed some of Pixar’s best films, he was suddenly helming a $145 million blockbuster despite never working in live action. You could see how “From the director of Ratatouille and the 49-year-old star of Lions for Lambs comes… the fourth installment in a meandering action franchise!” would raise some hackles.
Perhaps most importantly, Mission: Impossible was a franchise in desperate search of an identity. Its first installment was a taut Brian De Palma spy thriller where Cruise’s Ethan Hunt only shows glimpses of superhumanity. Mission: Impossible 2 is an exhausting John Woo slow-mo-fest so of its time that Limp Bizkit performed the theme song. J.J. Abram’s M:i:III was more conventional but also (aside from the memorable villainy of Philip Seymour Hoffman) the most forgettable. This was a series so uncertain of what it wanted to be that it couldn’t even decide whether to use Roman or Arabic numerals.
It’s remarkable, then, that Ghost Protocol contains both the franchise’s best setpiece and its funniest. Early in the film, Simon Pegg and a mustachioed Cruise sneak through the bowels of the Kremlin with the help of an elaborate projection screen that tricks a guard into believing the hallway he’s monitoring is empty. It’s silly but tense, and the use of an espionage gadget that wouldn’t be out of place in Bird’s Incredibles gives the film the distinct feel that Mission: Impossible needed.
Later, Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa with nothing but a pair of adhesive gloves and a dream. It’s a masterwork of practical effects, and the thrilling sequence, shot partially in IMAX, was a panacea to the weightless CGI that dominated most of Ghost Protocol’s box office competitors. Its only flaw is that it renders the rest of the film a little underwhelming by comparison. Once Ethan Hunt has dangled off the tallest building in the world, setting the grand finale in a parking lot is an anti-climax.
But that’s a quibble, and viewers agreed. Ghost Protocol’s sterling critical reception and $694.7 million worldwide haul blew its predecessors out of the water. It accomplished this with a simple formula: Keep the stakes simple, but throw in a few twists. Tell some clever jokes. Perform several stunts that make jaws drop. Keep slow motion and rap-rock as far away from the editing bay as possible.
That formula gave Mission: Impossible the stability it needed. Christopher McQuarrie, who revised Ghost Protocol’s script, is now locked in as the series’ director, and Ethan Hunt’s revolving door of sidekicks has closed. The movies that followed Ghost Protocol felt like M:I movies, not more flailing attempts to do something with the brand.
A decade after Ghost Protocol’s release, stunt director Gregg Smrz told Yahoo that it’s becoming rarer and rarer for studios to give stars and crews the time and money to create such tantalizing stunts. Why spend the money and take the risk when bland CGI still sells tickets? But Mission: Impossible continues to get a long leash because of what Bird and his team accomplished, and action movies are better for it.
There are signs that Mission: Impossible is starting to suffer from early-stage franchise bloat. Fallout, while fun, took itself far too seriously, and the upcoming Dead Reckoning being two parts suggests the series is further descending into an obsession with its own lore. Ghost Protocol, however, remains a perfect blend of drama and silliness. Hopefully, McQuarrie remembers that you don’t need reams of philosophical speeches when you can have two spies doing goofy shtick in a hallway.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is streaming on Netflix until Aug. 31.
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